by Sevenstars

The arrival of educated professional men--engineers, metallurgists, doctors, lawyers, and the ubiquitous mining-camp newspaperman with a hand-press and a "shirtful of type"--marked the day of schism in a new town. They built their homes in a section apart from the miners' shacks, saloons, and prostitutes' cribs; they sent for their wives and children, which in turn meant schools and a church or two. Lines of demarcation soon developed: there were "one-bit" and "two-bit" saloons, "two-bit" and "four-bit" barbershops, and the more important men weren't seen in the cheaper places. The successful man frequented a bawdy house with a ridiculous air of refinement about it; the other class paid calls on the girls "down the line." The bankers, professional men, wealthy merchants, newly-rich prospectors and their backers kept to their own with fancy-dress balls, lobster and caviar brought all the way from San Francisco or St. Louis, and even imported French champagne, while the other side of the (usually nonexistent) tracks degenerated into a bedlam of ceaseless carousing, gunfights, and cutting scrapes. There were workers versus idlers, laborers versus capitalists, whores versus "dramatic artists." By the time the camp had grown into a town it usually had a few women who struggled gallantly to establish the social and cultural values they had known elsewhere. These "respectable" women, the wives of the mine foremen, metallurgists, and businessmen, began to reduce the sin of the town, or at least make it less noticeable. With churches, schools, literary and singing groups, and temperance societies they attacked the crudities of their new environment; they saw to it that their families read good literature, and a few even managed to obtain melodeons or pianos. A school system was formed. Merchants were especially apt to contribute money and time to the worthy local causes espoused by the ladies, perhaps because they felt an instinctive interest in anything that would help to develop the town.

For all that, as one visitor said of Denver society in 1867, "There was a freedom from 'airs,' and a directness of manner among them that was marked." The enforced simplicity of life, the absence of comforts, and the daily experience of witnessing sharp fluctuations in the material fortunes of individuals, all tended to make democratic thinking a reality in the mining country. At its best it was a land of vigor, optimism, generosity, sturdy independence, and good humor.

Every boom lured into the wilderness the chaotic society that came to be regarded as characteristic of the early Western mining camp. Undoubtedly gold and silver camps attracted a good cross-section of the scum of several continents, but this differed only in degree from more established towns further East, especially the port cities like New York and Boston where the scum naturally washed ashore, there being no other way to get to America except down through Canada or up by way of Mexico. What was more remarkable wasn't that the undesireables existed, but rather the speed and thoroughness with which law-abiding citizens brought them under control. Much of the so-called lawlessness of the West resulted from the attempt to impose upon it Eastern laws which made no sense west of the "farming frontier" of about the 98th or 100th parallel. Distant as the camps were from any fountainhead of law and order, it was inevitable that crime should flourish and the wicked prosper; western Montana, for example, was at first theoretically administered as a part of Washington Territory, whose seat of government was on Puget Sound, and even when Dakota Territory was created in 1861 and Montana transferred to its jurisdiction, it was ruled from Yankton, which was only a short distance west of Iowa. Not until May of 1864 did it become a territory unto itself. Even then it took another half-dozen years for a truly effective government to take hold: in the interim, though there might be a governor, there was often no secretary (which meant that no vouchers for territorial monies could be signed) and no legislature (which meant that no such monies could be appropriated).

Under such conditions the need for roads, ferries, and bridges was met by voting franchises to ambitious private citizens, who set their tolls at rates calculcated to yield a good profit so long as the uncertain flow of travellers and goods continued. Schools and jails were supposed to be the responsibility of the local authorities, but pressure for the former was generally very slight except in some of the quartz towns and commercial centers, children being few elsewhere; while the latter, though they had plenty of potential customers, were almost invariably so "leaky" as to make it impossible to hold a prisoner for trial, let alone to serve his sentence. Typical was the Hangtown jail described in the song:

Canvas roof and paper walls,
Twenty horse thieves in the stalls;
I did as I had done before,
Coyoted out from 'neath the floor.

And while he might find momentary excitement in the hurly-burly of local elections, the average gold-seeker wasn't eager to sacrifice his time for the public good. Every man had left his home to better his condition. The community wasn't really supposed to be a settlement, merely a "camp" where everyone was trying to get what he could and then go home. Consequently the great majority tended to look after their own business and leave other people's alone. In many camps, too, well over fifty per cent of the population were emigrants, who couldn't vote: Cornishmen, Irishmen, and Germans predominantly, but also Chinese, Mexicans, Indians, Malays, Peruvians, Kanakas from the Sandwich Islands, Hindus, Russians, French and French-Canadians, and English. For a while, because the miners were preoccupied and because, indeed, the evil elements were better organized than the good, the road agents held bloody sway.

Men had to make their own codes, because there was no authority otherwise to make them; and many of the codes of the crowded, organized counties to the East were to the West absurd. An important element of the codes they made was the Anglo-Saxon concept of fair play. Under it no man could bushwhack another, shoot an unarmed man, or shoot another man in the back. He could call a play, thus giving all a fair chance in the ensuing duel or war. Some men were better shots, or faster, than others, but the code didn't call for equality, only for equal opportunity. All men had the right to defend themselves. As a corollary, inflicting death in an unpremeditated quarrel, or in a called fair fight, wasn't murder, but "a killing"--an incident which didn't strike at the roots of society, and was therefore tolerable. This happened both in the northern mining camps and along the Texas border, where casual killing was regarded as a relatively minor crime, if a crime at all; the penalties for burglary and robbery were far more severe.

In the camps, the framework for government and law and order was invariably established with an amazing rapidity. These governments were strictly improvised, but they were also strictly imitative, with no theorizing or experimentation. Laws were utilitarian. These men were hotly engaged in the business of mining. They wanted regulations sufficient to protect themselves, but they wanted nothing more: for one thing, they realized that, technically at least, they were trespassers on the public domain and thus couldn't perfect title; for another, unqualified ownership would have made them subject to taxes on real estate. Few were interested in permanent possession in any case. They simply hoped to strip from the land whatever mineral it contained and then abandon it without having it encumber them further.

Before the California rush, the United States had never had occasion to promulgate laws concerning the acquisition of title to public lands valuable for precious minerals, so the miners filled the void by creating their own basic mining codes and courts, based on Spanish-Mexican traditions (learned from the Sonorans during the California rush) and on the experience of migrants familiar with the Cherokee gold fields of Georgia, the lead mines of Wisconsin, the tin deposits of Cornwall, and the silver regions of Germany. These codes followed the California old-timers wherever they went, and so spread to the later strikes by a natural and organic process. Meeting informally in each new diggings, the miners set down rules defining mineral claims and their means of acquisition and transfer. Usually they provided for the size of claims, water rights, a miners' court, a president of the district, a recorder, and a sheriff, which officials ordinarily held their positions for six months at a time. They created extralegal courts to hear claim disputes or even criminal matters. Civil matters were usually settled by a jury, but criminal cases were often left to the judgment of the entire body of miners--a true "body politic." When the town got a little larger, a municipal government was formed, usually consisting of a council and mayor. Day-by-day government was handled by a town treasurer, a clerk, a marshal, and a city attorney, sometimes assisted by a street commissioner, an engineer, a physician, and a town scavenger whose task it was to collect garbage, privy filth, and animal droppings. All the usual problems of municipal administration were compounded by the question of money, meaning taxes: where would the squawk be least? Usually the remedy was a tax on all businesses, with the highest being assessed on saloons, dance halls, gambling joints, breweries, and theaters. There was often a general property tax also; poll taxes were fairly common, and fines added somewhat to the treasury. All this, however, was rarely sufficient, and delinquency rates of as much as thirty per cent were not unknown. In addition, both government and law and order were difficult to maintain.

Some of the disorder was relatively harmless: a saloon shot up, drunks galloping their mounts through the streets firing their pistols. The masses of men present provided plenty of spectators for street fights: one of them, at Treasure Hill, Nevada, attracted an estimated two thousand. Prostitutes were often the cause of disputes. Shootings, stabbings, robbery, and road-agentry grew apace as the scum of the Western population flocked to the gold towns. Crooked assayers waited for a greenhorn to bring a rich ore sample in, told him it was practically worthless, and then tipped off their friends to trail him back to his claim and offer him a small sum for it. If he wouldn't sell, they saw to it that he met with an accident very soon thereafter. The assayer usually charged a half-interest in the new mine for his trouble. In many camps claim jumping became a regular kind of legal blackmail, the jumpers hoping not that they would win their case, but that they would be bought off. If they weren't, they were often tarred and feathered.

Brawls, bred of bad liquor and the fact that every man carried a gun, produced in some camps an average of one shooting a day. With pistols almost a conventional part of masculine attire, life was lived dangerously and men frequently died with their boots on--and were buried without coffins in bleak mine regions where few trees grew. As in earlier frontier settlements, outlawry was rife and vigilante justice common among a population heavily drawn from the most adventurous souls, including not a few professional cutthroats, thieves, and reckless debtors. Beginning with the riffraff that came to California from the Australian penal colonies, the streets of the Atlantic seaboard cities, and the frontiers of the Mississippi Valley and northern Mexico, each new mining camp received among its early citizens a consignment of ready-made thieves and thugs. Nevada, Idaho, and later Montana, as children of California or of their own predecessors, received a good share of the parent's outcast bullies and "roughs." A peculiar and notorious variant of frontier criminal was Henry Plummer, who, while serving as sheriff of Virginia City, Montana, organized a gang of horse- and gold-thieves and stagecoach robbers as his deputies and murdered over a hundred travellers to conceal his crimes. Once a band of masked miscreants, perhaps associates of his, on horseback and at gunpoint levied tribute on the roulette game at the Old Montana Club. And though trouble with lawbreakers was hardly a new phenomenon for American border regions, the temptations were at a maximum in precious-metal camps, especially gold camps, whose only local product, gold dust, was easy to steal, easy to dispose of, and high in value. (Silver was not so vulnerable, as the smelters ingeniously reduced temptation by casting their product into bars weighing several hundred pounds apiece, to the frustration of highwaymen mounted on horseback.) Men with unstable or weak personalities, who in quieter communities might have led innocuous lives, became wastrels and lawbreakers. With a few professional "roughs" to provide leadership in towns that were at best free and easy, with the saloons and gambling houses turning out recruits, and with most citizens intent on their private concerns, many a town went through a period of something close to anarchy. Ninety-five per cent of the population might have consisted of honest, enterprising, industrious persons, and of the other five perhaps one-half of one per cent consisted of real "badmen," but the latter, through their bluster, recklessness, and tendency to congregate together, intimidated the ordinary citizens and more than made up for them. In Leadville, to take one example, strong-arm artists, sluggers, and gunmen lurked in every shadow. In some of the worst houses of prostitution thugs were sold the concession of robbing those prosperous-looking strangers who weren't drunk enough to be "rolled" by the girls. A victim might complain to the so-called police department, but he would get little satisfaction, for it was composed of some of the worst characters ever to grace any law-enforcement agency. If he was particularly loud in his indignation, they would throw him in jail as a material witness and hold him there until inactivity got on his nerves and he was glad to drop the case. From nightfall until after midnight the high board sidewalks along the main street and the red-light district were so crowded that a pedestrian with a destination usually took to the road. For years not a night passed without several shooting scrapes and dozens of robberies. No one, except ignorant newcomers and the foolhardy, ever ventured out at night unarmed. From dusk to dawn not an hour passed without the reverberating banging of pistols--usually in the spirit of celebration, but often enough in earnest.

Against such a background it was understandable that the mining communities often "took matters into their own hands" when dealing with crime. Quite aside from the lack of jails, legally appointed judges and sheriffs were too far away to be any real deterrent. Later, when constitutionally established authorities became more available, they were not always competent to meet really serious challenges, such as the well-organized gangs of murderers and thieves that made themselves so troublesome in Idaho and Montana. Most camps met the lack by way of miners' courts. Justice was truly swift: in at least one instance, in San Francisco in 1851, a convict named Jenkins, from Sydney, was taken in the act of robbing a safe, whereupon a jury was assembled, indubitable proof of his guilt was produced, and he was hanged immediately, about two o'clock in the morning. Somewhere along the line, the law made its appearance, but it was usually an unobtrusive one. By now the town boasted its complement of that class of man who was more adept at the business of killing than was the usual sheriff or marshal. When the shootings and knifings got out of hand, it was time for respectable men to form a vigilance committee. In a week or a month, the committee solved the problem of lawlessness by the simple expedient of hanging a dozen or so of the worst of its proponents under cover of night.

Where the lawless minority was well organized or had managed to get its friends elected to key public offices, a more elaborate action was necessary, because the citizenry needed to be not only aroused, but also emboldened to risk their lives against desperate men who freely used murder as a means of cowing the majority. Once in Oro Fino, Idaho, an organized gang shot down in the public street a man who had dared to challenge them, then rode up and down defying the citizens to come out and take their share of the punishment. At such a critical moment the majority was helpless without leadership. Sometimes a small group would assume responsibility; at others one determined man of commanding personality would risk his life to take charge of the aroused but irresolute crowd. Thus did the vigilantes of Montana, who were to be the bane of Henry Plummer, arise, inspired by Colonel Wilbur Sanders, a nephew of the first territorial governor. When a notorious criminal had finally been seized for a brutal murder, after months of unpunished gang dominance, it was Sanders who resolutely led the crowd through the forms of a trial before a "people's jury," despite the presence of armed "roughs" who openly threatened retaliation; and it was he who, upon hearing the death sentence pronounced, climbed onto the back of a wagon, knowing that hostile firearms were being aimed at him, and persuaded the indecisive crowd to hang the convicted man immediately. Once this was done, the tide turned rapidly: in twenty-one days of late December and early January, 1863-64, all twenty-four principal members of Plummer's gang were hanged. Similarly California's Vigilance Committee acted as an effective and active police force, which, either catching or banishing the rogues, "relieved the city from the thralldom of their presence," as the reporter Alonzo Delano expressed it.

Yet in most mining camps a washbasinful of gold dust could be left on a table in an open tent while the owner was far out of sight working his claim. Not till it was placed on a stagecoach for shipment did it become fair game for the desperadoes. Claims might be jumped, but burglarized they seldom were. Provisions and tools were seldom stolen. Theft, murder, and all kinds of criminal violence--apart from gunfights, which were seldom counted as such anyway--were rare.

Such was the environment in which Darcy grew from gawky teenager to tough, self-assured, hard-working packer. Name, climate, the contours of the mountains round about, might change, but the ambience remained the same. The experience shaped her as surely as did her family circumstances and innate personality. She learned courage, tolerance, and self-reliance. She learned that everything in life, every day of life, was a gamble, and that although hard work was important, and she must be ready to assume the burden of it, even more vital was being in the right place at the right time. She learned that a person's word must be his bond. She learned how to work with all kinds of people--and to understand that, because they might not always be there, she needed to be able to do for herself. She learned that convention counted for far less than character and ability. She learned that everyone had to be willing to stand up and be counted, to fight for the right and to defend what was theirs. She learned to read people and to understand not only what they were likely to do, but why. She learned to love excitement and activity, and to not become too attached to material goods. She learned to make the most of every minute she had, because life was chancy and transitory. She learned the value of improvisation, of being able to think outside the box and find creative solutions to problems--and of sticking with them once they had been tried and proven. She learned that it took, indeed, all kinds to make a world--an interlocking structure of skills, personalities, services and types. She acquired an evenhanded mixture of optimism and practicality, caution and willingness to trust, and learned the significance of being prepared. She learned generosity, independence, and the vital role of humor in meeting the ups and downs of life. She learned to play fair and to despise anyone who didn't. She learned how very easy it was for a few bad apples to give the whole barrel a bad name, and destroy the security and pleasure of it for everyone else. She learned not to delay once she had determined on a course of action, to be certain of her facts and then to move ahead and do whatever the situation seemed to warrant, without fear or hesitation.

In September of 1873 there was a financial panic; John Henry's bank failed and he lost his business, forcing him, and Darcy, to go to work for hire. She was twenty then and had seven years' experience behind her. John Henry was killed by Indians in the Black Hills in '76, and somewhat to everyone's surprise, among his estate was discovered three hundred half-forgotten shares of Nevada mining stock which, now that the economy was beginning to recover, proved to carry a worth of $16,000. Darcy and her brothers divided the proceeds evenly, and she made up her mind to rebuild the Cullin family business. $4000 was just about enough to buy fifty good pack mules, with nothing said of gear for them or the salary for handlers, and many lenders were leery of advancing money to a woman for such a goal, but her brother Vandy, who was by then a husband and father and used his share of the money to establish an independent practise in Pueblo, offered to serve as her backer. He took out a loan under his own name, then advanced her the money in return for a quarter-share in the business. She laid out $1250 for a supply of aparejo pack saddles, took up a homestead claim at the edge of town where she could raise her own hay and feed and built a barn on it, and began hustling for business servicing the Colorado camps, using Pueblo, which boasted rail connections from both north and east, as her headquarters. When she heard of the founding of Discovery, she decided it was the perfect opportunity to start off on equal terms with everyone else, and now that she had a couple of years' independent operation under her belt, she was able to convince various consignees to take a chance on her. The previous season had been her first packing into New Mexico, though she still lived with Vandy's family in Pueblo over the winter.

Given an equal start, there were few jobs Darcy couldn't do as well as a man or even a little better. She'd been known to black a man's eye or bloody his nose, then curse him because he wouldn't swing on her. She could ride all day, pick off a running deer at three hundred yards with her Winchester and then dress it out, skin it, and tan the hide, pack a mule as efficiently as any of her Mexicans, rope anything that would come within the length of her reata, patch a saddle or her own shirt or britches with equal facility, stitch a dress or a wound, knit her own socks, mufflers, and even winter gloves, tend a garden from seedtime to harvest, cook a first-class meal, play the banjo and bang out a very decent rendition of "Li'l Liza Jane," "Bonnie Sweet Bessie," "Where Was Moses When the Lights Went Out?," or just about anything written by Stephen Foster on the piano, imitate twenty different kinds of birds, cold- or hot-shoe a horse and trim his feet by the way, set a broken bone or pull a bad tooth, split firewood, drive a team, build a haystack, put up a lean-to of poles in fifteen minutes flat, do her own business books, help a mare bring her foal into the world, pick the nodding head off a flower with a bullwhip at thirty paces, speak Spanish, Paiute, a little Crow and Ute, and a smattering of French, German, and Swedish, play billiards, cribbage, faro, dominoes, backgammon, croquet, checkers, and chess, dance the waltz, polka, schottische, redowa, Virginia reel, galop, and every square-dance step known to man, and make a tin can jump with every bullet from her Colt, though she didn't shine as a fast draw. She ruled her salty packers with an iron hand, and they followed her with a blind loyalty they would never have given an Anglo male.

She knew that some of the men and all the respectable women in Pueblo disapproved of her, but she'd never been raised to need the approval of others to make her feel good about herself. Self-esteem, she thought, should come from within, and base itself on a person's awareness of her strengths and accomplishments. She'd heard all the arguments: a woman should be the guardian of the home and all its moral virtues, not a competitor of men, whose aggressive natures were better suited to working conditions; work was more demanding than a woman's "delicate health" and "limited intelligence" could bear, endangering her role as wife and mother; most jobs, certainly those in the rough company of men, threatened femininity and even encouraged immorality. A woman was made of "finer clay"--a pious, cheerful, modest, tender, and tactful creature, given to attractive blushes and occasional emotional outbursts, fragile and subject to fainting spells. Her business was to stay at home and be protected by a father or a good husband, whose love would shield her from the evils of the world--to use all the wiles of sex at her command to trap a man into marriage as soon as she could, get herself hitched up in double harness and raise a family, or, if she was so unlucky as to be an "old maid," help her married sisters (or, failing the existence of sisters, her brothers' wives) take care of their children. Only a "strong-minded" or "queer" female thought of anything so "unladylike" as a career of her own. Well, that might go in the East, where long-tested networks of family, neighbors, church and other social mechanisms stood ready to lend a hand, but not out here where your father or husband might any day fall to any of a dozen or more perils. Darcy had never claimed, or even really wanted, to be a "lady." John Henry had raised her with the thought that she would take over his business one day, her brothers having already shown that their talents lay elsewhere, and she was the mistress of her own life; she went her own way and made her own friends. She liked to sit in a bar talking with drummers and hear what was happening where they'd been, to play expert, cutthroat poker with Sheriff Keen and Doc Reardon and the newspaper editor and the owner of Pueblo's Great Plains Hotel & Saloon, to drink a beer with off-duty stage drivers, to go thirty miles to a dance with some homely cowpuncher and not get home till dawn. If on occasion she was unwise, she suffered for it: that was the way life was. She possessed both an easy, tolerant, casual acceptance of life and a certain amount of iron; her generosities were magnificent, her angers rages, her manner as simple and direct as a man's. Men adored her and loved her, and Darcy neither welcomed nor understood it; she seemed to have no interest in romance, her relationships were strictly man-to-man, and she always gave the impression that she'd shoot the first man who tried to make love to her. The room she slept in at Vandy's house was like herself, simply furnished, with a happy-go-lucky, not-too-neat carelessness to it.

Mary Travis and Billy listened in fascination as Darcy, over supper and dishwashing and at last before the Franklin stove in the sitting room, wove them the story of her unusual life, spicing it with anecdotes of the camps and the trail. It was almost ten and Billy was half asleep when his mother finally put him to bed. In the morning she woke to a muffled clatter from the kitchen and threw on her sapphire-blue house robe to find Darcy up and dressed and pouring sourdough flapjack batter onto the griddle while Billy perched on a stool and watched hungrily. "Hope you don't mind my taking over, Mary," she said. "I'm just so used to getting up at the crack of dawn to the song of mules, I can't stay in bed once it starts to get light. I've tried not to disrupt your system any more than I could help. Billy told me where things were."

Mary looked on bemusedly as the younger woman bustled efficiently about. The table had already been set, coffee was brewing, a pot of steaming, sweetened cornmeal porridge sat on the burner beside it, a basket of crisp-crusted hot biscuits rested beside the sugar bowl and creamer with a napkin tucked around to keep the heat in, and the warming oven yielded a big platter of fried ham with fried eggs cuddled into all the hollows and spaces of it. With butter and wild-grape jelly for the biscuits, butter and molasses for the flapjacks, home-canned peaches and slices of warmed-up berry pie to fill in the cracks, it was as good a meal as anything Mary herself could turn out, and she almost wondered why Darcy would go to all the discomfort and trouble of living on the trail half the year when she could probably make her fortune just as well by keeping a restaurant. Almost, but not quite. Mary herself had been a maverick as a girl; like answered to like, and she recognized in Darcy a woman much like herself, a woman of passion, intensity, good humor, mocking grace, and a powerful need for almost total independence. Fire, integrity, courage and restraint, all were there, revealed in the story she had told last night, and the curve of the lips, shape of the throat, set of the eyes, all spoke of spirit and of need carefully suppressed, held down with merciless discipline. Such a woman as this could only follow convention so far and no farther; she needed to prove her abilities head-to-head with men, as she had been doing with her brothers since she was old enough to tag after them. Mary wondered what the Seven would think of her.


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